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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Knowing me knowing you: Order and Relationships in an Open Prison in Iceland

By Francis Pakes

There are five prisons in Iceland; two of these are open. In the summer of 2018 I resided for two weeks in these open prisons. I had explained to the prison authorities in Reykjavík that I wanted to assume the role of a quasi-prisoner: I wanted a room, and to eat, sleep and engage in the daily activities that prisoners normally undertook. I have visited many prisons in numerous countries but never experienced a working prison like this, from the inside. Amazingly perhaps, my request was granted. They seemed to understand what I wanted: to try to feel what it was like to spend time there, if only for a week. But at the same time I was a researcher: I observed, took notes and spoke with anyone who wanted to speak with me. With some prisoners and staff members I spoke regularly, varying from friendly good mornings to in-depth conversations. Others I hardly saw. In this blogpost I want to focus on the staff.

What is it like to work in such a prison? I asked this question to any officer who was prepared to talk with me (the vast majority were). I already knew both establishments as calm, remote and, for want of a better term, picturesque. Each had fewer than 20 prisoners at the time I was there. The prison populations varied, in terms of index offence, age, nationality and also gender. And while these prisons were open prisons with very few security features and free movement within the establishment and into the very generous grounds, very few prisoners actually worked off-site.

Many officers had very little training. But in both prisons (often referred to as a house) staff had clear ideas about the nature of their role. They usually mentioned the non-discipline side of their jobs first. They talked about affording trust, about seeing eye-to-eye with offenders, and about helping. They often used hand gestures to explain their non-hierarchical approach to prisoner-officer relations: they placed hands horizontally at the same level with palms down. They also emphasised the importance of open communication by using their hands, with fingers upwards and palms facing each other. The palm of the hands, in this gesture, symbolised the faces of both prisoners and officers. They also frequently refer to affording prisoners time. They understood that some prisoners need to arrive at a frame of mind in which they are ready to make major life changes.

At the same time, officers had tacit expectations of prisoners. As elsewhere, officers in these two prisons had their own ideas as to what makes a ‘good’ prisoner. First, a good prisoner is industrious. Whilst there was little in the way of work off-site, or certificated work inside, a good prisoner knows how to make him or herself useful, whether that is working in the kitchen, looking after the sheep or the chickens, or repairing a fence. ‘I don’t like grown men lying in bed all day’, one officer said to me. There always is work to do. Another value is cleanliness. Cleaning up after yourself is important, such as after meals. A third is self-sufficiency. You are expected to make the most of your time in an open prison. Both neediness and idleness are frowned upon, something that may typify Icelandic society more broadly. Another virtue is friendliness to all other prisoners and staff which speaks to Nordic values of community and togetherness.

But if prisoners are meant to be active, clean, friendly and self-sufficient (and many are) what is there for officers to do? It soon became clear that much of the day-to-day activity is rather mundane. Officers dispense medication, collect the post, deal with queries, take prisoners on a variety of errands, have chats, answer the phone, and keep an eye on things. Discipline rarely featured in conversation and I saw none of it in these daily interactions.

I frequently asked about the disciplinarian aspect of the role. Both establishments were low on rules. There were few rules even for things like visiting. But breaking the rules can lead to penalties. And there is one form of punishment that prisoners talk about: to be sent back to a closed prison. Most prisoners agree that life is much better in open conditions and the idea of a return to a closed prison (there are two in Iceland) is a real threat. ‘It is the one trump card they have’ a prisoner explained to me. Data shows that this trump card is in fact played regularly: between 10% and 20% of prisoners each year are sent back to closed conditions for rule violations .

But in the main, officers often compared their style of keeping order to parenting. Looking after a vulnerable prisoner was referred to in terms of ‘babysitting’, for instance. Another explicitly referred to her approach as doing ‘the mum thing’. Her account of dealing with situations sounded very much like how you would deal with an obstinate teenager. She also mentioned how such an episode ended with a reconciliatory hug, all in the style of parent-child disciplining. This may typify a style of keeping order that is more paternalistic than professional or managerial, which may be more prevalent in Nordic prisons.

Another moment that helped me understand the approach that staff take was when a young prisoner left the house upset. I was near the front door as he stormed past me and I could see signs of distress on his face. I did not know what to do. However, before I could do anything a member of staff had appeared next to me and observed the lad outside. I noticed that whilst staff attitudes were by and large relaxed, and officers were frequently not seen to be doing very much, there was a sensitivity to the mood of prisoners and an alertness to any changes. With less than 20 prisoners in total and a fair bit of time spent together (such as eating, smoking, drinking the very strong coffee, or watching football on TV), people get to know each other pretty well.

Getting to know a prisoner as an individual is something that is part of the job. But interestingly the process goes both ways. Prisoners know a lot about the lives of officers too. For example, one officer had been off sick. He just dropped by one day while still officially on leave. He was enthusiastically greeted by staff and prisoners alike and it was clear that prisoners were aware of the nature of and various developments regarding his illness. One officer sometimes brought her children into the prison, and they mingled with some of the prisoners. Another officer would sometimes bring a dog, also much to the appreciation of some of the prisoners. Thus, officers, certainly in one of the two prisons I stayed in, brought their personal lives into the prison to quite a large extent. With so much time spent together and a good degree of ‘dead time’, this is perhaps inevitable. But it seems more than inevitable, it seemed appropriate too. In Icelandic open prisons, people do not only share space and time. They share more of their lives. There was a form of conviviality, living together and sharing lives, which goes a step further in Iceland’s open prisons that anywhere else I have seen. In summary, Iceland’s open prisons very much subscribe to the exceptionalism we see in other Nordic prisons. But at the same time, they have their own flavour that may be typically Icelandic and shaped by their small size, remote locations and by the specific nature of the national culture.




logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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